Like A Girl

Pushing the conversation on gender equality.

Code Like A Girl

How I Went From Sociology to Coding in a Year

I am a 28 year old, and like many women, I never considered tech as a possible career choice. I was always bad at maths and since my teachers didn’t care, I simply gave up and chose to pursue a literary education.

Without really knowing what I wanted to be I started an English civilization and literature bachelor at university after high school. I really liked the English language, but I knew I never wanted to be a teacher. I had the opportunity to study abroad, and so I spent a year in Long Beach, California at Cal State Long Beach. The classes I took opened my eyes to feminism and made me discover sociology and I wrote my dissertation on women in 1940’s Hollywood. When I returned to France I wanted to go towards women’s studies, even though I still had no idea what jobs I could get.

For my masters in sociology and women’s studies, I studied women in a computer science (CS) school in France; because my boyfriend had gone to that school and I found it odd that there were almost no women there. I wrote two thesis on the subject (in French), using interviews and data to understand why women didn’t go in the tech sector and why the women who actually went to that CS school usually left before completing the five years required. I found the environment to be very hostile— harassment and daily micro-aggressions.

I then worked for several non-profits on the topic of women’s rights, but with short precarious contracts. Still, I was working for such great causes so I wasn’t too worried. At the beginning of 2016, I started working for a program that helps women get into the digital sector in Paris. Most of the women who applied to the program were in digital marketing and communications, very few were technical; although companies told us they were looking for female developers.

As a coordinator, I kept telling women they should learn to code, that development wasn’t only for men, that they didn’t have to be good at maths to be good coders (as I had discussed in my thesis). Logically, and after years of being around the tech sector without really knowing its reality, I thought I should see for myself what code was like. My boyfriend told me about codecademy.com, so I started online courses.

I started with the HTML/CSS course and then the Python course. The way codecademy.com is formatted made it so approachable that I kept going. Soon I was deeply invested, woke up at 6am to go on codecademy.com, then thought about it during the day and went back again after work. I took every single course they had, 21 at the time totaling about 108 hours.

I made my very first website using only HTML and CSS. It was such a great feeling, to be able to create something; to not simply use computers. And, weirdly enough, it never felt like work. I was kind of bored with my job, I didn’t feel happy and I always felt time passed so slowly, but I didn’t really understand why. I was working for such a good cause, still, coordinating, writing emails and making phone calls all day wasn’t very fulfilling. But when I was coding, time flew by.

That’s when, in June 2016, I started to think, what if I could do this all day? Wouldn’t that be awesome? I tell the women in our program everyday that they should become developers, why not me?

So I started looking at training. I knew I didn’t want to spend years studying, especially since I already had a master’s. I found a six-month program at a school called Greta, that wouldn’t cost me anything since in France there is a fund for adult training that you contribute to when you work (yay socialism!)

But before I started, I decided to challenge myself and go to the month-long selection of a Paris CS school, École 42 (which is entirely free, and has just opened their U.S school). The selection process is called “La piscine”, translating to “the swimming pool”, because they drown you in code. You have to be there seven days a week for four weeks, and everyday you get lots of exercises, and there are no classes and no teachers. It’s very hard when you’ve never really coded before to be asked to use shell commands on the first day. The rest of the month is only on the C language, and you have to quickly learn the basics.

I thought that, if I didn’t like code, I could find out quickly and give up without regrets. Turns out, after crying and wanting to give up the very first day, I stuck around and actually enjoyed the intense experience.

That was last October and now, after completing the Greta training program plus a three month required internship, I feel like a real developer. It took me some time, because six months of studying code wasn’t enough for me to feel like a developer. But my internship in a large company allowed me to really get my foot in, and see if I could actually contribute to a team. Turns out I can, and I had the most delightful experience.

One of my friends, who was a developer but didn’t want to anymore, partly because of the sexist environment, told me that being a developer was like being a diva. Your work matters and everyone at the office knows that. It was a very strange feeling for me, as in all my previous jobs (10 years of experience in total, counting my student jobs), I had never felt that my work mattered. Not like that.

You must probably wonder how it felt going from studying the hostile tech environment to actually experiencing it. Well, I knew what I was in for that’s for sure. Although I didn’t experience or witness any harassment in my three-month internship, I did notice many things. Micro-aggressions (those jokes that are never funny, for example), that were very annoying. A project manager once said “Clementine, since you’ve written a thesis on women’s place in tech, why don’t you go get us coffee ?”

I also noticed the gender pay gap is alive and well. A female junior developer was hired at 24K to do the exact same job a male junior was hired for at 32K. Granted, he has a five-year degree and she only has a three-year degree, but still, I know of two male colleagues who were hired with only two-year degrees at 26K and 27K… and that only keeps on going as they go on with their careers. Because even if the female developers asked for raises, it would never even reach what the male developers are paid.

These problems will need to be addressed because more and more women will join the tech sector, thanks to the actions of great role models and organizations. I truly believe that wage transparency is the key here, everybody needs to know how much everybody is paid, we need to stop these shadow negotiations determined only by some random number you think you could ask for.

I’m just at the beginning of my new life, and I have a lot more to learn, but I am so excited at the idea of coding all day and maybe inspiring more women to join me. I’m gonna stay about a year at the famous 42 school, and then will come the moment to choose an employer, and negotiate my very own wage against the gender gap.